What to do when you have too much freelance work

An ode to the Pomodoro technique

This week, I’m re-publishing a newsletter from the archive. I first wrote about the Pomodoro Technique 18 months ago and I still use it when I’m overwhelmed with work, so I wanted to resurface it in case it helps anyone else.

Sometimes I get so overwhelmed by the mountain of work in front of me that I feel paralysed to even begin tackling it.

I was once at a panel talk on mental health where someone mentioned the Pomodoro technique, a trendy productivity hack that efficient people supposedly swear by. I've always prided myself on being someone who's good at time management, so have resisted these sorts hacks in the past. But then I found myself so flustered with the amount of work I had to get through that I was desperate to find something to help me focus.

So I gave the Pomodoro technique a shot.

It's really straightforward: you pick a task to work on, say “transcribe interview” or “write newsletter”, then you set a timer for 25 minutes and work solely on that task. After the timer is up, you set another timer for a five-minute break. You repeat this three more times and then you take a longer break.

It totally worked for me. I started off using my phone as a timer, but then I found this browser-based one, which I preferred. I like to put my phone on do not disturb and shove it in a drawer when I’m in deep work mode and using its timer only tempts me to get sucked into to attending to the notifications on it.

I first turned to the Pomodoro technique while I was in crisis mode, but I've kept on using it since then. For me, the 25-minute bursts of focused work are the perfect length (there's a school of thought that to get the most out of the technique, you should adjust the time blocks to suit you).

I personally find the Pomodoro technique most useful for writing. When I first used it, my mind was blown by how many words I can get done in 25 minutes. On a good day, I can smash out 300 words in one 25-minute time block. When you think about it like that, hitting an 800 or even 1000-word deadline in an afternoon suddenly seems a lot more manageable. Which is really what you need from any time management tip – the feeling of regaining control over your workload.

It’s also a really effective technique when you’re struggling to just get started on something. I personally find with any writing project that the first couple of sentences are the hardest. I don’t know what it is, but I just get this low-grade anxiety before I’ve written anything and that stress, counter-intuitively, stops me from actually starting to write. I find that setting that timer and focusing solely on the task of getting something (anything!) written down speeds the whole process up and just makes it a lot less painful.

Anyway, my timer's up now.